The Golden State Warriors are looking to cement their dynasty status before what will be a summer of change.
The Toronto Raptors are trying to cap off a franchise-best playoff run with the first NBA title ever to go north of the border.
One way or another, NBA history will be made with these NBA Finals, the first ones ever to have games take place outside the United States.
This is also a series with the three players trying to vie for the mythical title of “best player on the planet” with LeBron James having not made the playoffs — Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Stephen Curry. It’s a Finals that will feature other great players (Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry) and players on the rise such as Pascal Siakam.
Here are the five things to watch that will likely swing this series toward Toronto or Golden State.
1. When does Kevin Durant return?
This is the storyline of the series because it changes everything. Durant is out for Game 1, and while nothing is official (and he did travel with the team) Warriors coach Steve Kerr made it sound like Durant will be out for at least Game 2 Sunday as well. Whether he returns for Game 3 or not may depend in part on what happens in the first two games and how badly the Warriors feel they need him.
With Durant out, Raptors coach Nick Nurse can put Leonard and his physical, elite defense wherever it will do the most damage. Leonard can be on Curry if he gets hot, on Thompson (probably where he starts), Andre Iguodala (so Leonard can help more and be disruptive that way), or whatever causes the Warriors the most trouble. It also means Siakam can cover Green, then switch onto Curry and use his length when the Warriors use their go-to Curry/Green pick-and-roll. The Raptors will be in position to crank up the defensive pressure.
All that goes away when Durant returns. Leonard has to spend the bulk of his time on Durant, which is going to mean more favorable matchups for Curry, Thompson, and Green. Plus, Durant becomes another long, quality defender they can throw at Leonard on the other end (along with Iguodala, Thompson, and Green.
Durant’s return changes a lot in this series, the questions are when will it happen, and where will the series stand when it does.
2. Kawhi Leonard has to continue to be the playmaker he was against Milwaukee.
For the first four games against Milwaukee, Leonard averaged 2.5 assists per game.
However, over the final two games he had 16 assists — it was the best playmaking we had ever seen from Leonard. As the Bucks threw multiple defenders at him, Leonard found his teammates, and they knocked down the shots. The Raptors offense has generally seen less ball movement with Leonard in the game, but not the last two.
That has to continue against the Warriors if the Raptors are going to win.
Leonard is playing as well as anyone in the world right now, but he can’t do this alone. The Warriors are a good defensive team — even better with Durant out — and while Leonard will get his, it will be making sure he finds Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and the rest of the Raptors, and that they hit their shots, that will give Toronto a chance.
Put more simply: The second biggest question in this series is will the Raptors be able to score enough to keep up with the Warriors? Leonard has to be a playmaker for that to happen.
3. Can the Raptors switching defense slow Curry in the pick-and-roll?
To beat the Warriors in a series will require a team that can switch a lot defensively — similar to what the Rockets did a season ago — and the Raptors have the long, athletic roster that can pull that off.
On paper. Yes, they have Leonard, Siakam, Danny Green, and they should get OG Anunoby back this series, all guys built for this kind of switching defense. That said, having the players for it and executing it against the Warriors is another thing. Especially the way Curry is playing right now — and Curry is motivated chasing the Finals MVP he wants so badly.
Of course, the Warriors have a counter. If the Raptors switching defense does work well, expect to see Durant back and more DeMarcus Cousins — those are the guys they lean on to punish switches. They are walking mismatches. By the way, don’t expect to see a lot of Cousins this series, but he can have an impact in short stints.
4. Danny Green has to find his shot.
Danny Green struggled mightily with his shot in the Eastern Conference Finals — he hit just one of his last 15 three-point attempts and was 4-of-23 for the series. Coach Nick Nurse turned to Fred VanVleet off the bench, and in the final couple of games (after VanVleet’s wife had their son), it worked brilliantly as VanVleet was lighting it up.
The problem is the Warriors will light him up. VanVleet is listed at 6’0” while Lowry is 6’1”. Curry and Thompson are 6’3” and 6’7”, respectively, and will shoot right over the top of smaller defenders. Just ask Portland how that works.
Green is 6’6”, meaning he has the kind of size — and plays the kind of defense — the Raptors will need on the perimeter in this series. If he is still slumping and not an offensive threat, the Warriors will be able to help off him and cause more trouble. The Raptors need Green to be a threat teams cannot help off of again.
5. Toronto cannot have one of its historically disastrous Game Ones.
Toronto came into these playoffs with a reputation of blowing Game 1s in ugly fashion — and then lived up to that billing. The Raptors lost big to the Orlando Magic in the first game of the first round. In the Eastern Conference Finals, they led by as many as 13 in the second half but didn’t score on their final seven possessions and blew the chance to steal Game 1 on the road.
Toronto bounced back handily in both of those series to win handily — that will not be the same against the Warriors.
Game 1 sets up well for Toronto: The Raptors are home, the Warriors have been off for nine days and should be rusty, plus there is no Kevin Durant. Toronto needs to win this game, both because of all that and for the confidence — drop Game 1 and the doubts about if they can match up with the Warriors will creep in. This is a different team on a different stage than Toronto has faced before.
The Raptors need to put a little doubt in the mind of the Warriors on Thursday night.